And so we’ve concluded the Season of Nantz portion of the sports calendar, when Jim Nantz, CBS’s most prominent play-by-play voice for a quarter-century now, doubles down on his usual ubiquity and calls the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four and the Masters within a matter of days.
His “hello, friends” prominence is enhanced even beyond its usual scope this time of year, and it got me thinking: Who is the best big-event national play-by-play broadcaster at the moment?
With apologies to Dave O’Brien (who was superb on the Mississippi State-UConn women’s basketball call), Verne Lundquist (semi-retired but still has the pipes), and Dan Shulman (the best anywhere at navigating a three-person booth), here’s my top 10.
10. Kevin Burkhardt. The downside of John Lynch’s fascinating decision to become the novice general manager of the San Francisco 49ers is that he had to give up his gig on Fox’s unheralded but excellent No. 2 NFL broadcast team alongside Burkhardt. They just got better and better in their four seasons together, to the point that they became one of the few tandems that I genuinely looked forward to hearing each Sunday.
That progress was due in large part to Burkhardt’s talent for bringing out the best in his partners, something especially evident in his role as the affable ringmaster of the Pete Rose/Alex Rodriguez/Frank Thomas circus on Fox’s baseball studio programming.
9. Marv Albert. He has lightened up his schedule in recent years — he stopped calling NCAA Tournament games for Turner Sports last year — and nowadays his voice occasionally wobbles, a reminder that he has been calling NBA games for 50 years. But he lends a big-event feel to every game, even the random and uneventful Knicks-Pacers matchup on a Monday night in January.
Is he still one of the best? Unequivocally . . . yessss! (C’mon, you knew that was coming.)
8. Mike Breen. Since the 2010 NBA Finals between the Celtics and Lakers, I’ve heard periodically from Celtics fans who are convinced Breen is anti-Green. I’ve listened for it, and I’ve never heard it.
I do think I know why Breen has that reputation, though. Part of it is his longtime affiliation with the Knicks, but the chief reason is that he unfailingly calls big plays with great enthusiasm. When it’s the opposing team making those plays — as the Lakers did in Game 7 of those Finals — it can be unfairly interpreted as the announcer piling on.
Go back and listen to his call of, oh, Ray Allen blowing past Sasha Vujacic to clinch Game 4 of the ’08 Finals, and I bet you’ll smile.
7. Jim Nantz. The longtime voice of CBS is actually the impetus for writing this thing. If we were ranking them solely based on profile, he might be atop this list. There’s no mystery about Nantz at this point. He is polished, professional, but often uninspiring. Consider his call of the final seconds of North Carolina’s title game win over Gonzaga.
“This year the confetti is going to fall for North Carolina! They’re not going to be denied this time!”
You know what that is? That’s capable. Fine. Unobtrusive. Also, it’s unmemorable, the play-by-play equivalent of a decent piece of white-bread toast. It’s the stylistic opposite of . . .
6. Kevin Harlan. Fox’s Super Bowl LI broadcast with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman was excellent, but the always-energetic Harlan’s call on Westwood One radio — particularly as the game shifted in the Patriots’ direction — was a gem in its own right.
And no one is more zealous about highlight-reel dunks than Harlan during TNT’s NBA games. I challenge you to find a better way to salute to a slam than, “With no regard for human life!”
5. Sean McDonough. When Red Sox fans of a certain age mention to me that they miss Don Orsillo (which still happens more than it should), I sometimes wonder whether they realize they actually miss McDonough in a sense as well.
He was essentially Orsillo’s predecessor (even though they overlapped for a time on NESN and Channel 38 broadcasts), and their voices were strikingly similar, to the point that Orsillo was accused of being a stylistic imitator in his early days. The main difference is that McDonough was much more adept at wielding sarcasm, which you’d think would play well with this audience.
Anyway, regardless of that local flashback/digression, he remains as polished and versatile as any high-profile broadcaster working today, save for perhaps . . .
4. Mike Tirico. During his 20-plus-year career at ESPN/ABC and, since last June, NBC, Tirico has called, among other high-profile events, NBA and NFL broadcasts, college football, and basketball, golf, and tennis. He also has served as an anchor for World Cup and Olympic coverage. Friendly, articulate, in command and yet unobtrusive, he’s the most well-rounded big-name broadcaster working today. NBC got it right in choosing Bob Costas’s de facto successor.
3. Mike Emrick. You couldn’t get sports fans to unanimously agree on whether a hockey puck is made of vulcanized rubber or is really a Ring-Ding removed from its foil. (You know in a sample size of 100, there would be at least one contrarian it’s-a-Ring-Ding truther in there.) Which makes it remarkable that Emrick, best known as NBC’s top hockey play-by-play voice, is as close to as universally beloved as any sports broadcaster not named Vin Scully.
Then again, it makes sense. Emrick is just that good, coming across as engaging, original, and effortless in the most difficult sport of all to call.
2. Joe Buck. If you had a negative perception of him early in his career, it’s well past time to reconsider. The voice of Fox Sports gets tagged with a smug label even though he’s as genuinely self-deprecating as anyone in the business. And like Breen, he gets hit with an unfair he-hates-my-team label. New England sports fans should have recognized this long before his prolonged on-point call of the Patriots’ rapid and hard-to-fathom comeback in Super Bowl LI.
Buck, whose late father Jack was an iconic broadcaster in St. Louis, essentially grew up with the Cardinals as part of his extended family. Yet his call of the Red Sox’ clinching victory in Game 4 of the 2004 World Series (“Red Sox fans have longed to hear it . . .”) could not have been more perfect if he were a Boston lifer.
1. Al Michaels. An easy choice for No. 1, and it’s not just because he confirmed 37 years ago that we could indeed believe in miracles. All these years beyond delivering arguably the most iconic call in the history of American sports, Michaels is still the best big-moment announcer working today.
And if you remain skeptical for some reason, I offer you these words, delivered without pause but with an extraordinary tonal mixture of timing, incredulity, bemusement, and wonder: “Pass is . . . intercepted at the goal line by Malcolm Butler! UN-real!”
Michaels had delivered another timeless call before we could even process what had happened. That’s what makes him the best, still.